Stay healthy while fasting and feasting

No matter how often you've done it, it is always a good idea to review how to fast healthily during Ramadan.

Dates, a staple of Ramadan meals.
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With Ramadan scheduled to begin this week, many people are gearing up for the month-long celebration that involves abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. If you observe Ramadan there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure the daily fasting and nightly feasting are as healthy as can be. Take it slow Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast, is crucial for providing the body with much-needed energy, fluids and nutrients. While breaking the fast with a large meal is certainly appealing when your stomach is growling, it is important to practise self-restraint and go slowly to prevent overeating.

Sitting down to a big meal when you are famished is a sure-fire way to overindulge. From a health standpoint, the best way to break the daily fast is with a light snack that provides a quick source of energy and takes the edge off your hunger. That way, when you do sit down for a big meal later in the evening, you are less likely to make unhealthy food choices based on impulse. Traditionally the fast is broken with a few dates and water, which are excellent choices. Dates contain natural sugars, which act as an immediate energy source, and water is the most hydrating fluid you can have. Dates are also packed with potassium, which helps maintain the body's fluid balance and prevent dehydration in the summer heat.

Fruit juice, especially qamar al din, which is made from dehydrated apricots, is another popular way to break the fast. While juice does offer fluids to help you stay hydrated, tread carefully when it comes to filling the glass. Fruit juice is a concentrated source of calories; a glass can contain anywhere between 30 and 40 grams of sugar. That is a whopping eight to 10 teaspoons of the sweet stuff.

Like dates, juice acts as a quick pick-me-up thanks to its sugar content. If you choose to break your fast with juice, opt for the pure, unsweetened kind and keep serving sizes to a minimum - between 125 and 250 ml is appropriate. Better yet, choose a piece of whole fruit - you'll be getting the added benefit of fibre and it will be more satisfying. Go for variety When sitting down to your main meal after you've broken your fast and taken the edge off your hunger, enjoy a variety. To stay healthy during Ramadan you should be choosing edibles from all the food groups to ensure you are getting enough nutrients in your diet. Balance your intake of protein-rich foods, such as fish, meat and poultry, with whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Drink up Just as important as what you eat is what you drink. Abstaining from liquids during the day, when temperatures are above 40°C outside, can put you at an increased risk of dehydration. Fluid requirements do not change during Ramadan, which means healthy adults still need between two and four litres of fluids per day. That means drinking plenty of water with each meal and snack and sipping on water through the night. Soup, pasta and fluid-dense foods such as cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, grapes and oranges are easy ways to boost your intake.

Start the day right Suhoor, the predawn meal, is critical for keeping energy levels up through the day and allows you to better undertake the task of fasting until sunset. Unlike the quick sources of energy eaten at iftar, the best foods for suhoor are those that release their energy slowly. That means plenty of fibre-rich foods such as oats, brown rice, whole grain bread, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Protein is another must - it helps keep energy levels up through the day. And, of course, plenty of liquids for the hours without ahead. * Michelle Gelok